Denis Simioni, 38, had owned an advertising and graphic design firm for 15 years in his native Oakville, Ont., when he first happened upon a substance called "ojon." Seven years later that little word has transformed his life, along with the lives of thousands of indigenous Hondurans, who supply ojon oil to his hair-care company, aptly named "Ojon".

Simioni, whose company employs 32 people full-time and projects $40 million in sales this year, says managing an operation with employees spread all over the globe is both exhausting and rewarding.

Here is his story:

Q: How did you go from advertising to hair care?

Simioni: My ad agency specialized in the beauty industry, so I learned all about launching a brand in this industry. One Saturday my wife came across a little jar in the bathroom with something in it that looked like peanut butter. It had been sitting on our shelf for two years. She called her grandmother, who lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and is always sending us natural cures and native remedies. Silvana’s grandma told us that the product was ojon oil she’d purchased from an Indian. Silvana’s hair was really brittle and broken from swimming and coloring it, so she put some of this stuff in and with just one treatment the difference was incredible.

Q: So you decided to figure out what exactly this mystery goo was?

Simioni: We changed our vacation from Disneyland (DIS) to Honduras that year so I could track down this Indian. Turns out he was from the Caribbean side of the country, from a Mosquitia rain forest. I contacted a nonprofit group called Mopawi that helps preserve the rain forest and the indigenous tribes who live there. They agreed to take me to meet the Tawira people, whose name actually means "the people of beautiful hair." You could hardly get a better testimonial. What was even better was that I flew into the jungle and was traveling downriver in a mahogany canoe for 5½ hours. Suddenly, we started to see people who weren’t wearing any hats. All the other tribes use hats to protect their hair from the sun, but the Tawira put ojon oil in their hair and don’t need hats. I met them, saw the process they’ve used for centuries to collect nuts from the ojon tree and produce the oil. The women unraveled their long hair and showed me how beautiful it was.

Q: Did you know immediately that you could commercialize this product?

Simioni: Yes. It took several years to secure intellectual-property protection and collaborate on the formula with some skin-care manufacturers from Italy that I’d known from the ad agency. I had fallen in love with this company, Origin Italian, because they were all about passion and purity of ingredients. They didn’t have any experience making hair-care products, but they had a laboratory and a boutique manufacturing facility and they specialized in organic ingredients. We formed a partnership with them covering manufacturing costs, and we self-financed the startup.

Q: How did you get the word out about your new product, given how saturated the hair-care market is already?

Simioni: I had a friend who had a relationship with QVC. I got me a meeting with them, they loved our story and invited us to launch our first product on Dec. 27, 2004, at 10 p.m. As soon as the show aired, we sold out our initial inventory and had a wait list of 3,100 units. A year later, on the same day, we launched our first one-hour show on QVC, and within 40 minutes we sold out $1.2 million of product.

Q: Why has television been so successful for you?

Simioni: I realized that TV is the medium we need to tell our story and the story of the Tawira. Being on QVC drives our sales month-to-month. We’re now their fastest-growing hair brand.

Q: The story of the indigenous people is key to your sales and marketing. Do people ever wonder if you are exploiting these natives?

Simioni: Yes, we’re always fighting that perception because of all the past exploitation. That’s why we’ve continued to work through the nonprofit organization, whose president is a Tawira himself and speaks their language. Because we are buying so much product from them, at a price about 230% higher than what they used to get, we’ve provided full-time work for more than 1,000 Tawira in about 30 villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. We’ve also provided them with scholarships, safety equipment, and education. They have elected indigenous committees to negotiate with Mopawi and with Ojon Corp., mostly made up of the women who produce 80% of the oil. Now they are purchasing land in one of the larger villages that has schools and a hospital, so their kids can have better lives.

Q: How much have their lives changed because of your company?

Simioni: They are still incredibly, incredibly poor and their development is decades behind what we know. But they used to support themselves by subsistence farming and deep-sea diving for lobsters, which was very dangerous. The children used to dive instead of going to school. Now that each of them can earn about $300 a year making ojon oil (they made about $67 annually in the past), a lot of them have switched over to that. I’m looking into building schools in their villages. I want to do that in partnership with the government, so that they’ll have qualified teachers and materials.

Q: You could have set up an operation to harvest the ojon nuts and produce the oil with modern technology, bypassing the indigenous producers. Why not do that?

Simioni:  I fell in love with these people. They have absolutely nothing in the world, but spend a week with them and you’ll see that they are always smiling, calm, and peaceful. It’s difficult because of the language barriers, their lack of education, and their remote locations. There’s no telephone in these villages, and everything moves slower there. They’re not on any time clock. But they believe that I was sent by God to help them and they’ve put me on this pedestal. I feel it’s my calling to live up to that.

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